Ross Douthat: Who won and who lost the fiasco in Iowa?

(Charlie Neibergall | AP) Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his mom Anne Montgomery, left, greet supporters at a caucus night campaign rally, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

The disaster in Iowa on Monday night exemplified so much about the American situation at the moment — the failure of our parties, the self-sabotage of our institutions, the disastrous interaction between creaking political systems and the flimflam “improvements” of the tech economy — that it’s tempting not to attempt political analysis at all and just let the thing stand as a kind of outrageous art installation, a fiasco that speaks for itself so completely that all commentary is superfluous.

But the Democratic primary campaign will continue, and so punditry of some sort is required. So let’s try, in the shadow of absurdity, to figure out what was won and lost Monday night (at least based on the returns we have right now).

Let’s start with one of the de facto co-winners, Pete Buttigieg. Strip away the tabulation problems, and he had a great night: not only outperforming expectations slightly to battle with Bernie Sanders for the top, but also watching Joe Biden sink dramatically, leaving the way clear for the erstwhile mayor to claim to be the viable moderate alternative to Sanders and socialism.

As the biggest winner from the reported results, Buttigieg is therefore the biggest loser from the botched count. He’s deprived of headlines and momentum that both his own vote totals and Biden’s plunge should have earned him, and his decision to serenely claim victory in the midst of a massive technological “upgrade”-turned-meltdown, I’m afraid, played as a bit of an obnoxious McKinsey move. Even if Biden melts down, Buttigieg’s window to become the moderate choice could be a narrow one, lasting only until Mike Bloomberg’s money comes to bear — in which case every day we’re litigating outcomes is a lost one for his campaign.

By contrast, for Buttigieg’s co-winner, Sanders, the botched count actually balances his apparent failure to win decisively, making him a winner in the voting and the fiasco both. Yes, it’s not as good an outcome for Sanders as a thumping 10-point win or a big delegate edge, but the solidity and national spread of his support means that he has the clearest path to the nomination in a permanently divided field, and if one of the main effects of the Iowa disaster will be to delay any winnowing, that’s almost certainly good news for him.

And the fact that it’s Buttigieg rather than Biden sharing the win is also probably good news for Sanders, given that Mayor Pete has negligible support in many national polls and little traction with minority voters. A race where Biden collapses and Buttigieg and Bloomberg scramble to fill that space is almost certainly better for Sanders than a quick consolidation into a Sanders-Biden battle of the septuagenarians — and the first scenario just became a lot more likely.

But less likely than it would have been without the fiasco, which is why Biden, the big loser of the actual voting, is probably the biggest winner of the tabulation debacle: It obscures just how much he slipped beneath his polling, lets Iowa be swallowed up by other stories (the State of the Union, impeachment, coronavirus and then … New Hampshire!), and makes it modestly more likely that he can limp through to South Carolina with a chance to make a stand.

That effect is only modest because voters aren’t momentum-obsessed pundits, and if Biden’s support is as fundamentally weak elsewhere as it proved in Iowa, that will manifest itself going forward regardless of the caucus headlines. But at the very least we can say that Biden is the only candidate competing in Iowa for whom the delayed announcement of the victor is unqualified good news.

For Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the disaster’s effect is somewhat less significant. Warren’s apparent third-place performance keeps her in the running, but if she can’t beat either Buttigieg or Sanders in the early states, then her campaign’s only purpose will be to accumulate delegates for a hypothetical brokered convention. In which case maybe the meltdown helps her a little, by making such a marathon more likely — but it might also just obscure her weaknesses relative to the top finishers, giving her a reason to burn donor cash a little longer than she reasonably should.

That’s definitely the case for Klobuchar, whose failure to even come close to catching Buttigieg or Warren in her own Midwestern-High Plains territory should probably finish her campaign: The tabulation meltdown may be a useful excuse to keep her campaign going through New Hampshire and even all the way to South Carolina, but she doesn’t actually have a good reason to stay in.

Finally, for Iowa’s non-competitor, the other mayor in the race, the whole night went beautifully: A wounded Biden and a Buttigieg deprived of the full benefits of victory is pretty much all that Bloomberg could have hoped for in his apparent plan to be the last non-Sanders option standing when Super Tuesday rolls around in March.

And if this also brings us closer to a scenario where Bloomberg succeeds only in pushing the Democrats into a brokered convention that fatally divides the party, helps reelect the incumbent and makes the free-spending billionaire one of history’s goats?

Well, that’s a risk Bloomberg is apparently willing to take — and one reason among many why the biggest winner last night was the man who has been profiting from folly and chaos and stupidity among his rivals since 2015, the president of the United States.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.